by MARITES N. SISON
I recently met a young Iranian student from York University who was pleasantly flabbergasted that I was so taken by her people’s culture and that I even knew how to properly pronounce Iran [sounds like e-ran, not I-ran, people].
As a child of the Cold War era, I told her that I knew about the whole Shah of Iran, 1979 Islamic Revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini bit. I’ve also been a low-to-moderate Iran watcher – which, by the way, doesn’t just mean I’ve watched Argo.
But I had to confess that a big part of my continuing fascination has to do with her country’s cuisine. Until we moved to Toronto, the extent of my knowledge about Persian food had been limited to kebabs, pita bread and roasted tomato salad, which were being sold in a hole-in-the-wall near my old office in Manila. But I couldn’t get enough of their charbroiled, robust goodness and neither could the young, Iranian expats, most of whom were studying medicine at a nearby university.
When I read a succession of books about Iran – Reading Lolita in Tehran, Lipstick Jihad, Iran Awakening, Prisoner of Tehran, The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life, Ali and Nino, … I was hooked. These books offered a window to Iran’s complicated and tortured past, but they also introduced me to powerful insights about a proud people’s rich, vibrant culture that have been reduced to caricatures of the ululating mob of angry women in black, shapeless chadors and the odd rantings of the man named Ahmadinejad.
Thanks to Toronto’s Little Persia and the growing number of Persian restaurants in the city, the ambrosial world of Persian cuisine opened up to me in a big way. I have even learned how to cook Persian jeweled rice – now a staple of our holiday dinners.
So when my daughter presented me with Louisa Shafia’s The New Persian Kitchen, I was not daunted; in fact, I was beyond thrilled, especially when I saw a recipe for rice with fava beans and dill that I had tried (and loved) at the humble eatery inside Little Persia’s Khorak supermarket.
“So what exactly is Persian food?” Shafia begins with the question she is often asked in America. “The best way I can think of to describe it is as a lush garden in the desert, a familiar image from classical Persian lore. Like our mythical garden, Persian cuisine is perfumed with the floral scents of citrus, rose water, and quince,” she proffers. “Fresh and dried fruits feature in meat, rice, and desserts alike, while ingredients such as pomegranates, saffron, and pistachios are called on as much for their taste as for their striking appearance, which evokes the colors of nature.”
She doesn’t stop there, fortunately for us. The New Persian Kitchen is a beautiful book in every way – a veritable feast for the mind and the senses with its lush photography, interesting variations of classic recipes and all the information you can possibly want about Persian cuisine.
There’s none of the irritating marginalia that often creeps up in some cookbooks (“I hand churned the butter myself; I added piquant herbs freshly plucked from my organic garden with my composted organic wood chip mulch and I paired it with my handcrafted artisanal sourdough bread that I baked to perfection in my mint julep Viking oven. “ My words, not anyone’s, but you get my drift).
Instead, Shafia walks us through the history of Persian food in a very informative, engaging (even cheeky) way. E.g., “When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire, he mocked their extravagant die and concluded that the Persians’ indulgence in culinary pleasure weakened them and led to their downfall.” Nonetheless, she adds, when he and his army headed back to Greece “they took care to stuff their sacks with Iran’s most native ingredients, including pistachios, saffron, and of course, pomegranates.”
It’s not a blind glorification of Persian food, however. There are fascinating facts about what Persian cuisine assimilated from other countries and what it has exported. Persia’s preserved quinces and bitter oranges became England’s marmalade; China’s eggplant, sesame seeds and garlic became staples in Persian cooking via the Silk Road. Rice also came from East Asia and in time became the main starch in Iranian fare.
Interspersed with recipes are sidebars with information about things that perplex most people, among them, “What’s the difference between Shia Muslims and Sunnis? How do they celebrate holidays and religious festivities? What is halal food? What is kosher food?”
Born and raised in suburban Philadelphia to an Ashkenazi Jew mother and a Muslim father, Shafia deftly navigates both worlds, both cuisines, and then some. Her recipes emphasize whole grains and gluten-free flours that are all the rage in North America, use minimal amounts of fat and oil and offer substitutions to make recipes kosher.
I tried the recipe for turmeric chicken with sumac and lime and ended up with no leftovers.
The No-Bake Persimmon and Goat Cheese Cheesecake shall be on the Christmas Eve dinner menu.